Approaching Jesus with good intentions

This Sunday is one of those weeks where preachers can do a lot of unintentional damage.  I’ve done some, over the years.  I’d be willing to be most of us have because when it comes to the dichotomy setup between Jesus and the Pharisees, it all seems so easy.  The Gospels often use the Pharisees as a foil against Jesus the hero.  They are the theological straw men upon which the Gospel writer builds their theology of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Pharisees play interlocutor to teacher Jesus so that he can expound a deep piece of wisdom.  And we, 21st century preachers, don’t know enough about the Pharisees/inherit two millenia of anti-Judiasm/succumb to the temptation of supersessionism and we put them before out congregations as sacrificial lambs for our sermon’s narrative arc.  We can do better, if, for on other reason than we are the modern day Pharisees and we ought to be careful.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus can read the intentions of the Pharisees.  As a reminder, it is Holy Week, and tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day is about to boil over.  He’s come to town riding a donkey to cries of “Hosanna” and “Son of David.”  He has flipped the tables of the money changers in the Temple.  He has engaged in theological debate.  He has threatened their understanding of the way in which God works.  That Jesus perceives malice in their question about paying taxes makes perfect sense.  This up and coming Rabbi is threatening not just their piety, but the foundation of the Pax Romana, and when one upsets Rome, the collateral damage is extensive.

It would be easy to say, “those Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, don’t be like them,” but how often do we approach the throne of grace with 100% pure intentions?  What percentage of the time are our prayers self-serving?  How often does fear of losing the comfort of the status quo motivate us to pray?  When do we not come before our Lord hoping to get something from him?  If Jesus was able to discern the motivations of the Pharisees, he is able to do the same with us.  As you say your prayers today, come with a clean heart and a settled spirit.  Come not looking for anything in return.  Don’t expect good feelings, comfort, or joy.  Before we look down our noses at the Pharisees, we ought check ourselves.

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A Complicated Teaching

By and large, Jesus tends to stay on message throughout the course of his three years of active ministry.  Whether in parable, teaching, argument, or aside, his message tends to be about the immanence of the Kingdom of God and the preparations one should make for its arrival.  There are times, however, when you dig down into the nuts and bolts of what Jesus is actually saying and things get complicated.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is one such occasion as we hear Jesus flip flop a bit on the question of motivation.

In his teaching about table manners, Jesus suggests that guests choose a lower seat so that when we are invited higher, we might be honored in the sight of everyone.  Pausing only to turn his attention to the host of the dinner party, Jesus then tells him to not invite people who can invite you in return, but instead to invite those who are often left off the invite list.  Of course, anyone who has hung around religious circles much realizes that the question of motivation is ever present.  We shouldn’t follow Jesus to get out of hell, but there are plenty of churches that preach that message.  We shouldn’t do good works to earn God’s love, but there are plenty of sermons that imply that very thing.  We shouldn’t take pictures of people who don’t look like our congregation in order to make the website more diverse, but, well…

Read as a whole, the message of Jesus on the topic of motivation can be complicated.  Do we sit lower in order to be invited higher?  More often than not, we will find ourselves still seated in that lower place when the meal is all over.  Do we invite the poor who cannot repay us?  Absolutely, but that probably doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also invite the rich and the middle class who need to know the love of Jesus as well.  In the end, I find that balancing my motivations is of utmost importance.  As that great theologian Ice Cube once said, “You better check yo self before you wreck yo self.”  Or in Rite I language:

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If you are volunteering in that ministry because your mother told you to 50 years ago or because it is where there is power to be had or because it is the group in which to see and be seen; well, you probably ought to check your motivation and find something else to do.  If you are engage in ministry to make yourself feel better, to get your face in the newsletter, or to make your neighbor feel guilty; thou has already wrecked thyself.  If, however, your motivation is love of God and of neighbor, then it doesn’t much matter if you are the President of the Standing Committee or locking up after a parish potluck, your name has been honored where in matters – in the kingdom of God.